The Value of Failure
Article written by Rick Clark
I have a brother.
Like many little boys he grew up playing sports. His favorite was basketball. He practiced and worked hard and dreamed of making the school team. But it didn’t happen.
He wanted to be a leader. He ran for student government several times. Along the way he both won and lost. Ultimately, he became president of our high school.
He studied, did his homework, crammed for tests, and did not cheat, even when those around him took shortcuts. He wanted to be the valedictorian or the salutatorian. But it didn’t happen.
If you are a sophomore or junior reading this: be encouraged that you are still in Chapter 1. Heartbreak, setbacks, and challenges. Every year we read regularly about losses of siblings; parents getting divorces; difficult uprooting moves to different schools, cities or states; breakups; substance abuse problems; discipline issues; severe illnesses, and the list goes on.
These events or periods will always be part of your story. But they do not define you. Rather, they help give you a deeper sense of empathy. They make you a better listener. And they simply demonstrate a fundamental truth — we were made to be in community. We were made to have deep friendships and relationships. My hope is these early experiences, while incredibly tough in the moment, will help you learn now what many struggle with well into adulthood: we must be able to trust others in our weakness and be available to them in theirs.
I have a brother.
He wanted so badly to attend a particular Ivy League school. It was his dream. It was his top choice. He applied with high hopes and a strong record. But it didn’t happen.
He was admitted to a public school—an incredible campus and community. A place he was excited about. He interviewed for their top merit scholarship, a prestigious award and an elite group. He spent the weekend there, and felt confident about his chances.
He did not receive the scholarship, but chose the school anyway and made the most of it. He wrote for the school paper, joined a number of groups, plugged into the community, and studied abroad. He blazed a path of a new major and befriended professors and students alike. He ran for student office— and lost. He wanted so badly in his final year to receive the honor of living in a special part of campus. But it didn’t happen.
If you are senior reading this: Some of you have been admitted to your first choice university and are excited to get started this fall. Others were denied admission to your top choice. A few have realized your dream college is ultimately not affordable, and you’ve reluctantly put down your deposit to another place. Then there are those of you who ultimately won’t come off the waitlist at your number #1 school.
My hope is regardless of where you are going, you get excited about that place—that community and experience. People will describe college as “some of the best years of your life.” I think hearing that before you go puts unnecessary pressure on you. Instead, I’d say they are unique years. You get the chance to be around a bunch of young, interesting, fun, creative, (insert your preferred adjective here) people who all live close, have free time to be together, and are not juggling as many responsibilities as life typically brings later down the road. And that is amazing! Arrive on campus excited about the uncertainty and committed to exploring.
Regardless of where you are today in your college journey, I have good news— failure awaits, and disappointment and heartbreak are coming. Congratulations! In college you are going to receive some grades that you did not even know existed (read Bs or Cs); someone is going to turn you down for a date, an internship, a research opportunity, or a summer program (hopefully those are separate people for each because that would be weird otherwise). You may learn the major or profession you’ve always wanted to pursue is really not for you. You may end up transferring to a different college. Don’t be dejected. Instead, be thankful. The truth is you don’t learn lessons, or grow or improve, or develop deep friendships and trust when things are totally smooth, comfortable or easy—in fact, the opposite is true.
I have a brother.
He graduated and moved overseas so he could master the language he’d taken as an undergraduate. Eventually he went to law school and added a second language while there.
He took a position at a prestigious law firm. He worked 100 hour weeks, impressed clients, married a smart, beautiful woman and started a family.
He did not make partner. He was “out-counseled.” He started a company that ultimately failed.
He moved back overseas, practiced law, and eventually started a different company. This one made it.
Anyone reading this who meets my brother today would be impressed. They would see, respect, and admire the accomplishments. They have not heard the pain, seen the tears, or experienced the disappointment. They would not know that along the way he’s also lost a father and a child.
Anyone student reading this should take time to seek out and really listen to a few people you admire. Forget about who they appear to be. Ask them about their almosts, their low points, and their losses. One of the worst things about social media is it allows people to showcase wins and hide their struggles. One of the best things you can do is take time in the months ahead to find someone twice your age and ask them to share it all. They’ll be honored and you’ll be encouraged.
Like all of us, my brother is both perfect and deeply flawed. He’s a failed athlete, an Ivy League reject, a fired employee and an unsuccessful entrepreneur. He’s a tri-lingual attorney turned successful small business owner who lives abroad with his incredible wife and amazing children.
I have a brother.
We don’t share the same parents. We did not grow up in the same house. Our bond is not blood but rather a lifetime of sharing joy and sorrow—hopes, dreams, setbacks, and progress.
If you are reading this, my hope is you will come to understand and appreciate that success is not a point-to-point trip. A life fully and well-lived is not a straight road. So when you feel like things are falling apart; when you look around and believe “everyone else is happy;” when you question what you did wrong or why something did not work out, my hope is you will remember you are not at a dead-end, or even a U-turn that is forcing you to double back. These are inevitable turns, re-routes, and natural bends in the road you should expect on any journey.
Part of your story is already written. Beginnings are interesting but incomplete. They are often filled with challenges, setbacks, and difficulty. The beauty is you get to keep writing. No matter where you are today or where you plan to be next year, I hope you will not dwell on what has been but instead commit to explore, attempt, edit, and continually learn. Get excited about writing your next chapter!